I carry each one away from the pavement into a corner of grass or brush out of decency, I think. And worry. Who are these animals, their lights gone out? What journeys have fallen apart here? ~ Barry Lopez "Apologia".
Moving roadkill off the asphalt is just about the last thing I want to do. I love the idea of it, and desire to respond to the senseless waste of life in such a reverent way, as an act of respect, a technique of awareness (Lopez). But there is a resistant and immediate response that has also always been there for me whenever I see crushed beauty...I don't want to look at it, I can't touch it, I can't bear the sorrow, the rage.
Death by the side of the road was one of my most immediate reinitiations to country living. Having been spared its daily countenance by the swept city streets for 18 years, I had almost forgotten the toll it takes, the carnage piling up in my soul when witnessing it day after day. Slowly cruising the back roads of West County, I also have noticed my own anger around it acruing. Folks drive too fast...not everyone, but many...often dudes in big trucks with tinted windows. I remember the sneering indifference towards animal welfare that was the hallmark of the ranching town I grew up in, and so I imagine all drivers as a conglomeration of that community, accelerating at the opportunity to hit an animal like it's a video game, upping their score. Sometimes it's an accident, not every tragedy on the shoulder was purposeful, but I also know too well the kind of bizarre hate towards nature that can lurk in rural communities, and I struggle with my own hopeless hurt around it all.
As of late, I have also been struggling with mortality. Mortality, capital M. Brought up in part by my return to a more immediate experience of the cycles of life through living on land, rather than just the perpetual 25 yr. old sparkle party that was SF. It also has to do with my age and health, the 40s having arrived with a bit more of a downwards slope than the plateau of the 30s. My body now shows undeniable unwinding, and the horizon of my ultimate destination is coming into focus. A joint, Netflix and the Mythology of Someday used to be my recipe for escapism and denial, but it doesn't cut the edge anymore. A quote by Carl Sagan has become my favorite dharma, summing up the terrible and beautiful acuity;
"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” ~ Carl Sagan
I have been following Jonathan Balcombe on FB, drawn in by his erudition and love for animal people. Jonathan has the lengthy title of Director for Animal Sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, and is also the author of several books including "Pleasurable Kingdom: animals and the nature of feeling good" and "Second Nature: the inner lives of animals.". I was captivated by one of his recent posts (WARNING: graphic photo):
Rather than look away in dismay or horror, I took in the photo as fact, his words as truth, and resonance in my chest as a compass needle finding north. Even so, I wasn't exactly delighted when presented with opportunity the very next morning.
I was nearly to the half point of my daily run when I saw the skunk, the fluff on her striped tail moving from a sudden gust of wind, in paradox to her stillness. Not now, I thought. I don't have gloves. I can run back and get a shovel. It's too early, I haven't had coffee. Just then, another car approached at high speed and barely missed repetition with its wheels. She was still intact, the kill was recent. If it was going to be an act of respect, the time to move her was now.
There were no spilled guts, no gruesome show. She could have been in a narcoleptic repose, only taking a rest in an ill chosen location, except for the ants. The first to arrive, I thought. They were exploring her face, her nose, her closed eyes. With a pool of her spray behind her, I chose to pick her up close to the front shoulders. The weight of her body was reassuring. My normal indignation at roadkill is light and hot and bangs into window panes at the corners of my mind. In contrast, her heavy death in my hands was real. Like touching into a pool of cool grief after flailing around in anxiety, carrying her body across the road brought relief. This was simple...my palms and fingers, her coarse fur and cool meat, my sorrow and reverence meeting ground. It was so much better than turning away, than just driving by.
I lay her by the cattle fence, close to the Bessies and their calves, a pond reflecting the sky, the branches of the dead oak leafed with blackbirds. I looked up at the fog breaking into blue and thought of the turkey vultures that would arrive later that morning. Of the yellow jackets and the micro-organisms, the green flies and the bacteria. Off the road, her funeral would be attended, her body laid to rest. I felt the rightness, my own desire and hope for a similar goodbye.
I ran back home, only needing to stop once, dry-heaving from the smell. Despite my careful choice in holding her, my hands still stunk. I scrubbed with baking soda and vinegar to no avail once home, and I thought What will the other parents think when I pick up my daughter from school? But by mid-morning, after going about the usual chores, the smell had faded away.
I do plan on putting together a kit for my car, and look forward to shopping for a small shovel. I also want to get a couple of boxes, in varying sizes, with towels inside, in the case of rescue. Perhaps a bottle of water and a small dish too. I don't know if I will stop for every one. I think so much of it will have to be gauged on timing, traffic, a sense of I can handle this. But it would be an honor to continue this technique of awareness. It feels like the least I can do, for them, and also for myself.
But next time, I'll probably wear gloves.